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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 6, April 2005

Effects of cuts on mathematics

by Marc Garneau

Increased class size affects all teachers. Issues arise in some of the other content areas in a more critical way perhaps than in mathematics classes, but there are a couple of concerns I would like to point out. First of all, many mathematics students benefit from one-on-one support from their teacher. Support occurs in class and also outside of class time. For the students who struggle with the increasingly difficult concepts, and those who are striving to achieve top marks given the highly competitive university entrance and/or scholarship requirements, that support often makes the difference. As the number of students requiring such support increases, the ability of teachers to provide it decreases—hence student achievement declines. Second, with a larger number of students it becomes increasingly difficult for teachers to assign and collect performance tasks or regular homework—the assessment of which provides crucial information to the teacher and the student about problems with mathematical process and understanding. Unit tests and quizzes end up having a greater impact on students’ marks, and the opportunities to assess "for learning" diminish.

The new graduation requirements have also zapped the time and energies of teachers as schools and districts grapple with how to support student portfolios, course selection, and Grade 10 provincial exams. While the Grade 10 provincial exams will count for only 20% of a student’s mark, the external reporting of student performance, coupled with the data’s being used for District Accountability Contracts, artificially increases the importance of the exams, and can ultimately drive instruction. The richness of learning experiences commonplace in our Grade 10 mathematics classrooms will be grudgingly discarded for the oversimplified accountability of high-stakes standardized testing. This is especially true for the Essentials and Applications courses, whose students’ success is due, in part, to the more project- and inquiry-based approach to instruction, learning, and assessment. That the exams are 100% machine scorable is also a concern; it sends the message that the correct answer is to be valued over the process. By eliminating the opportunity for students to demonstrate their understanding in thoughtful and creative ways, the examiners ignore crucial principles of mathematical development. Further, the cost savings of having machines create and score exams (after the initial development) is seen as outweighing the system-wide benefit of including educators in writing, revising, marking and thus learning more about expectations for good teaching and learning.

We are also concerned that both the Grade 10 and 12 exams are now held secure. The valuable experience for both teachers and students to sit after the exam session to discuss how it went is now much more difficult to attain.

With so many cuts to the ministry staff, curriculum development, among many other things, suffers. On the plus side, we have been fortunate that the ministry staff has kept open lines of communication with us and has shown a willingness to listen. This is most recently true with the support for getting feedback on the proposed new WNCP Mathematics K–9 curriculum.

Marc Garneau is president of the B.C. Association of Mathematics Teachers.

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